Illinois baseball looks to make improvements that’ll last for June

By Michal Dwojak, Assistant sports editor

There was a common theme among Illinois baseball players and coaches when they met with the media on Monday. They demonstrated a sense of pride in the weekend’s accomplishments — winning all four games in the season’s opening weekend — but also highlighted their caution.

Boasting its best start in 15 years, the Illinois baseball team (4-0) is far from overconfident.

“We need to continue to be more consistent,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “I truly believe that you see the most improvement with teams from week one to two.”

Illinois will have an opportunity to see how the improvements are progressing when the team travels to Fort Myers, Florida, this weekend to play two games against Florida Golf Coast (1-3) on Friday and Sunday and one versus Fordham (1-2) on Saturday.

The starting rotation ended the weekend with a 0.34 ERA, 25 strikeouts and only eight hits allowed in 26.3 innings, but the Illini still needed a pair of late-inning surges to come back against New Mexico State on Friday and Saturday. Illinois scored a run in the top of the ninth inning to force extra innings in game one and scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth to give the team a 4-2 lead.

Hartleb acknowledged that the early-game offensive struggles were not something he can blame on his team. For much of the two games against the Aggies, the Illini hit the ball hard, but often right at New Mexico State players. Later in both games against Lamar, the hits began to add up and allowed Illinois to escape the weekend with a perfect record.

“It’s not always about the hits, it’s about the quality at-bats,” Hartleb said. “There’s a process to be a good hitter, there’s a process to be a good offensive team, and as long as we’re doing the right things with that process, we can live with whatever happens.”

That process involves having all nine batters taking quality at-bats. Illinois is looking to be more aggressive early in games. Although the pitching staff had a strong performance last weekend, nothing is assured. Junior pitcher Kevin Duchene will not pitch for the Illini — he remains suspended —  and his status will be re-evaluated next week.

Illinois will need to improve offensively if it wants to move up in the national rankings. Currently ranked No. 26, Hartleb and his team know that a number shouldn’t define who the Illini are. In order to be a team that competes in the College World Series in June, there are plenty of improvements left to make.

“It’s definitely cool, but there’s a long way to go,” senior pitcher Drasen Johnson said. “Last year we started 1-2, it was kind of, ‘Let’s not be down on ourselves.’ Same thing with 4-0, let’s not get too excited. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Michal can be reached at [email protected] and @mdwojak94.